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A Quietus Interview

A Life Bizarre: Sheila E Interviewed
Simon Price , November 4th, 2013 08:23

Legendary Latin-jazz percussionist SHEILA E gives Simon Price a ticking-off for asking too many Prince questions. And tells him about her new album, her autobiography, her charity work, and her relationship the Almighty. Oh, and also about Prince. (A bit)

Sheila E throws open her curtains in the morning, and looks out upon the palm-fringed white sands of Waikiki Beach. I draw mine closed on a cold English night. Hers has always been The Glamorous Life.

My first ten attempts to telephonically reach across the divide between us meet with the dreaded "The number you have dialled has not been recognised". Eventually, the eleventh time, I get through. I ask if we can still have the allotted thirty minutes, but she offers fifteen max. As things turns out, I won't even need all of that, because Sheila nixes an entire line of enquiry.

After three or four questions regarding her astonishing body of work with Prince, she abruptly tells me to stop banging on about him. Now, this is requiring a lot of me, because I can barely get myself to stop banging on about Prince when I'm just talking to my friends, never mind the woman who was his protegee, who drummed on some of his greatest recordings and most memorable tours, and even dated him for a short while.

It's the eternal conflict, when interviewing an act with a glittering history. The journalist, channelling the second-guessed wishes of their readers and/or their publication (as well, no doubt, as their own), largely wants to ask about that glittering history. The artist, sick to death of that stuff, only wants to discuss what they're up to right now. Usually, both sides understand the situation, and compromise with a bit of both. Sheila E plays along for about three questions relating to the P-word, before losing patience and snapping.

In some ways that's understandable. There's more to Sheila's CV than knocking around with the little feller. Sheila Escovedo was born in Oakland, California in 1957 into an unusually musical family. Her father Pete Escovedo and uncle Coke Escovedo, both percussionists, played with Santana. Another uncle is the acclaimed solo artist Alejandro Escovedo. Her godfather was the legendary Tito Puente. She began drumming at the age of four. By her late teens she was already an accomplished muso-for-hire, and her CV is easily the rival of, say, a Herbie Flowers.

It's a dazzling list, from playing on Marvin Gaye's final tour, to MD-ing Performance At The White House: Fiesta Latina for President Obama. Over the years she's played with, among countless others, Diana Ross, Cyndi Lauper, Beyonce, Ringo Starr, Phil Collins, Stevie Nicks and Lionel Richie, with whom she refused to duet on 'Endless Love' on the grounds that she was there as a drummer, not a songbird. And that's in addition to her career as a solo artist. You can understand why she might be a little touchy about constantly being seen through a Prince-shaped prism.

But it isn't as if I don't have any questions about her new album, Icon. In fact, that's how I start...

Icon is your first album for 12 years? Why the long gap?

Sheila E: First of all, I didn't realise it had been that long. I'm so busy all the time, I didn't even notice. I'm always performing, playing, producing, writing, directing. My life still goes on, whether I do a record or not. Which is a great blessing. But in the midst of writing my autobiography, which is due out next year, I started noticing that some of the stories could also be songs. So I did the record towards the end of writing my book, which is how it ended up becoming what it is. I thought, "You know what, this is a great time to put a record out. And let's see, when's the last time I had a record? Wow, 12 years ago! That's a very long time..."

The very first track is a minute-long overture of crazy percussion. Was that to make it clear, right at the top, what you're about?

SE: Absolutely. It's to let you know, for those who have not seen me, that I really do play. It's who I am. The foundation of who I am is jazz, Latin jazz and percussion. That conga solo, I laid down in one take. I didn't punch in any of my solos. What you hear is one take, live.

The song 'Old Skool' speaks of the "golden years" when "everyone had to play live", and there's a line "What you gonna do when there's no Autotune?" Are you against the use of technology in music?

SE: Oh no, I love technology! I'm not dogging Autotune at all. I think it's a great tool. I am a tech-geek. I love incorporating the old and the new, and I think it's awesome that we're able to do that. But I came from the old school as well. My friend Lynn Mabry, we have our foundation Elevate Hope, because there was not a lot of music programs for underprivileged kids, and we've been finding out that, all these years now, they're taking the music out of schools. But the kids wanna learn, so it's... let's get back to basics, let's start over. So we're starting programs to put music back into schools. We love technology but at the same time, let's start with the basics.

There was a time, around 'The Glamorous Life' and 'The Belle Of St Mark', when you looked in danger of becoming known as a pop star rather than a musician - were you comfortable with that?

SE: Yeah, it's a good point. At one point in time, after I think it was '86, I just felt that I was singing so much that it was taking away from what I had started with. Which was to keep myself involved in my music, with percussion, drums, anything that fed me musically. It's not that I always have to play, but at that point I felt it's better that I go back to just playing. Cos I felt a little empty. It's not that being a pop star was a bad thing, but I realised what was really important to me. So I just took a back seat. I decided I wanted to play with musicians and play for people. It doesn't matter if it's ten people or ten thousand.

But even during that period, you snuck things like 'Merci For The Speed Of A Mad Clown In Summer' onto your Romance 1600 album, this insanely hectic avant-jazz instrumental...

SE: Yeah! It was a little bit of a twist, and I was very bold to put that kind of music into a pop/R&B culture. People looked at me like, what the heck is this? It was a little bit of something to, I dunno, keep you on the edge.

The first time I saw you was on the Lovesexy tour in 1988, which remains one of the greatest shows I've seen in my life. What are your memories of that?

SE: We just had a great time. Involving production in what we did, and things like playing in-the-round, no-one was really doing that. And we played all different types of music: not just pop and funk, we put jazz in there, some fusion, a little bit of Latin, we put everything in there. Prince was also influenced by the music I had brought to him, and he grew up almost listening to MY music, and my family's music, inspired by the Bay Area sound, which is why I brought half my band to that band.

You were the musical director on that tour. Prince has a reputation as a bit of a drill-sergeant with musicians but presumably, this time, that was partly your job?

SE: Oh yeah. You know, we worked good together, so he knew what my work ethic was, and I knew his, in a sense, so once we started playing together, it was like, well THIS is easy! We kind of both get it. Which is great.

There are all kinds of myths about how you met. According to your Wikipedia page, Prince approached you at a concert, and said he and his bassist "were just fighting about which one of us would be the first to be your husband". How did that strike you, as a chat-up line?

SE: It was great. One always wants to be looked at and loved and appreciated and proposed-to. I certainly did! But it wasn't exactly the first thing he said. I mean, I went to see him perform in the Bay Area, and when I went to introduce myself, the first thing he said was 'I already know who you are. I've been following your career.' The Wikipedia page has a load of things that aren't even true. If you wanna believe that, believe it. If you wanna ask me, ask me. Which is exactly what you did...

You left the Prince organisation in 1989, but worked with him again in 2003. In between times, did you always remained connected to the Prince 'family', if you like?

SE: I never really left. I left to do other things, but we have remained friends since 1978, so nothing's changed.

The Prince collaboration on Icon, 'Leader Of The Band', sounds like it was fun to make, right from the beginning, when we hear your father saying "I'll just hang back here and let Prince play piano..."

SE: Well, we re-recorded it with my family in Los Angeles, and it was initially going to be on the family record [The E Family's Now & Forever], then we decided not to, and I saved it for this one. Which was perfect, because being leader of the band is something I learned from my dad. I've been watching him my entire life, and he's a fantastic, amazing leader.

That track has a bit of a Santana feel to it, which is a cool little throwback, because your father and uncle were both in Santana.

SE: Right, exactly.

Your greatest collaboration with Prince is arguably 'A Love Bizarre', which is just this addictive groove that goes on forever, and...

SE: I'd really like to talk about the new record. I think we've covered Prince enough. If that's OK with you. Because we only have so much time. If that's alright?

A frosty chill has suddenly fallen upon Honolulu, while in Brighton, my ears are burning red. In any interview with Sheila E, the subject of Prince is inevitably the biggest elephant in the room. Let the record show that she mentioned his name before I did. And that she subsequently raised her shotgun to that poor indoor pachyderm's head, and mercilessly gunned it down.

Now, I confess that I'm a Prince obsessive. I've got his symbol tattooed on my arm. I've got a pile of ten books about him next to my desk. Maybe I'm ill-placed to judge the appropriate amount of Prince talk in a Sheila E interview. On the other hand, her own press biog mentions Prince eight times, the press release for Icon (on which he makes a guest appearance) an additional four. So am I really the bad guy here?

Sadly, it means I'll never get to ask her about 'Erotic City', the great 'lost' Prince hit (B-side of 'Let's Go Crazy' and never an album track), on which Sheila allegedly refused to sing certain lines due to their profanity. I'll never get to ask about the sublime 'Pop Life', or the way her super-hard thwack dominates 'U Got The Look'. And I'll never get to ask why she did an Edward Lear rap down a phone line on 'It's Gonna Be A Beautiful Night'.

What I should have said, I realise, is, "But Sheila, I want to know about YOUR role in these legendary recordings, a role which has been underplayed." But it wouldn't have made much difference. And to be absolutely honest, it wouldn't have been the whole truth. So, chastened, I switch tack and get back to Icon.

Someone called Bobby G is credited a number of times on Icon. I don't recognise the name...

SE: He's an incredible guitarist and songwriter from the Bay Area, and he's been playing with me off and on for ten or fifteen years. And not a lot of people know about him. In the United States scene people know who he is, but I don't think he's been abroad. If he has, it's not been in twenty years, probably. He's in my top four or five guitar players, because when he takes a solo, it's a solo you will remember and you will hum. It's old-school, like when Earth Wind & Fire would take a solo, we'd memorise all those solos. And that's what he does.

Another guest star on the album is MC Lyte on a sparse, minimal track called 'Nasty Thang'...

SE: At first, when people hear a song called 'Nasty Thang' they think it's gonna be about someone who's nasty sexually. But it's not about that. People have dogged me for things, and it's like, everyone has a back story. You don't know, when you meet someone, what they've gone through. So people might see me and dog me one way, but you don't realise I've paid my dues, just cos it's not in the news. Doesn't mean I haven't been through it. And that was part of the reason for bringing stuff out in my book, you know.

What's the main intention behind writing your autobiography?

SE: Initially it was going to be called From Pain To Purpose, but we changed it. It's part of my testimony. We have a team of 30 or 40 or 50 people, and we travel around the world as Christians and artists and musicians. And part of my testimony is that I share. Not just at regular concerts, but in churches or communities. And part of my testimony is that I was raped when I was five years old, by a babysitter who lived upstairs. So, through that pain, music helped me to heal. I needed to share that story with anyone else who'd been through that in their lives. I started to realise, when I'm sharing, that in a room of 20 people, there's probably 17 or 15 people who have been abused or molested or raped, in some kind of form, mentally, spiritually or physically. When Lynn Mabry and I started Elevate Hope, and we started looking at the numbers of kids who had been abused or killed by someone close to them or related to them, and it's staggering.

This is the sort of thing you touch upon in the song 'Girl Like Me'...

SE: Exactly. And that's why that song is there. And there are a lot of other stories in the book, that have come about through my lifetime of going to school, right up to where we are now. And there was loads more that I couldn't put in the book, because I was only allowed to do 300 pages. I'm sure there'll be a book number two...

Perhaps the most striking credit on Icon is for "Executive Producer: God". What was the nature of his input? What exactly did he contribute?

SE: Why I say 'God' is because without Him I am nothing. All things are possible through Christ. And for me, the change happened early on in my life, but I wasn't really realising how God is so amazing. I thought I was in control, but once I got sick, my lungs collapsed, my legs gave out on me, I messed up my back... You think you're invincible but you get to a place where, I thought I could jump off a building or jump out of a plane without a parachute and land on my two feet, and I found out that wasn't the case. And you realise you're not in control, and realise who has created you to be who you are. The gift that he had given me, which was music and art, and the ability to go around and share that, I don't take that for granted. And because of that, I give Him all the glory and the praise. I can't take credit for what He has given me. This is how He has created me.

Friends of mine have come away from Sheila E live shows with their minds blown. Can you tell me a little about what they entail?

SE: What happens is a little bit of live music, and a lot of being spontaneous. There's certain songs we'll do, of course - songs that people know - but this will be fairly interesting, because I haven't had a new record out for a while, and the record doesn't get released until November 8, or the 23rd in some countries, and I'm not even releasing it in the United States until next year. So to come to Europe and do a whole show of new songs that no-one's heard will be very challenging. But they're such fun songs, and for me, live, I just wanna get everyone engaged and involved. And when I have fun, and enjoy what I do, everyone else does. I have to say my fans are the best. They're awesome. Because they know all the different genres of music that I'm able to play. They know the different people that I've performed with. And about my family, and where I've come from. It doesn't matter if I've had a record out or not. My fans come out to see me and support me, because they love what I do. They know that they'll be taken on a journey, and that's the fun of it.

[Sheila E politely puts down the phone, and walks away into the sunshine. I turn off the lights, and dream my purple dreams]

Icon is released on November 8. Sheila E plays Under The Bridge, London on November 23